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by Terry McNeill
Sunday, May 14, 2017
Violinist Benjamin Beilman’s ravishing Mozart performance at last summer’s Weill Hall ChamberFest finale lured an enthusiastic crowd to Schroeder Hall May 14 to hear if his secure virtuosity was up to a program of demanding sonatas. He did not disappoint. With the powerful pianist Orion Weiss in t...
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, May 07, 2017
Bruno Ferrandis may be French, but he excels in Soviet repertoire. His Slavonic expertise was more than amply demonstrated at the Santa Rosa Symphony’s May 7 concert, where the program began joyfully with Khachaturian’s ballet suite from “Masquerade,” surged forward with Prokofiev’s second violin co...
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Friday, May 05, 2017
Pianist Richard Goode programmed an evening of treasures May 5 from four great composers, and is an artist of intimacy and intelligence, power and passion, able to go deep and to soar. Hearing Mr. Goode play this literature was a reminder of how music does indeed bridge worlds and time. Bach’s E m...
by Paul Blanchard
Sunday, April 30, 2017
Organist Jonathan Dimmock presented an April 30 recital in homage to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, playing Schroeder Hall’s wonderful Brombaugh instrument. Mr. Dimmock is the organist for the San Francisco Symphony, principal organist for the Palace of the Legion of Honor and teaches at...
by Nicki Bell
Saturday, April 29, 2017
The Hermitage Piano Trio brought exuberant musicality and sumptuous sound to a packed house April 29 in Occidental's Performing Arts Center for the last concert in the Redwood Arts Council’s 37th season. With a wide interpretive range--from lush to delicate to passionate--these three young Russian v...
by Lee Ormasa
Friday, April 21, 2017
Those people once addicted to the “Angry Birds” game application likely suffered an auditory flashback during the opening measures of the allegro from Bartok’s Suite, Op. 14, the opening work in Yefim Bronfman’s April 21 recital at Weill Hall. The repetitive opening figures of the Bartok were...
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, April 08, 2017
A composer’s first symphony rarely gives a clear indication of what beautiful complexities will follow over the years. Early Mozart and Tchaikovsky are examples, and the big exceptions to this axiom are the “firsts” of Beethoven, Shostakovich and Mahler. Tackling Mahler ‘s D Major Symphony (No. 1,...
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, March 26, 2017
Santa Rosa Symphony concerts usually feature high-powered soloists imported from afar, but for their recent “Bring on the Strings” concert set, they stuck close to home, thrusting their principal violin, viola and cello into the limelight. The violinist (Joseph Edelberg) and the violist (Elizabeth P...
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, March 19, 2017
Piano Competition winners are in ample supply, and it’s often a hit and miss proposition as to their sterling interpretative qualities. However, the quadrennial Van Cliburn Competition in Ft. Worth has continually produced top-level artists, and the 2009 winner Haochen Zhang proved a formidable per...
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, known as Akamus, played a Weill Hall concert March 12 in a program called "Foreign Affairs -Characters of the Baroque.” The ensemble, that began in 1984, has 15 musicians led by concert master Bernhard Forck. Attired in elegant black with red accents, ranging from tie...
Redwood Arts Council / Saturday, March 01, 2008
Jupiter String Quartet


by Steve Osborn
Saturday, March 01, 2008

The March 1 concert by the Jupiter String Quartet and clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester at the Occidental Community Church drew a remarkable crowd--not in terms of numbers (the concerts there are often sold out), but rather in terms of age. After squeezing into one of the few remaining pew seats, I looked around and beheld crowds of young faces, perhaps a third of the audience. This was not your usual chamber music crowd; nor is the Jupiter String Quartet your usual chamber music ensemble.

The Jupiter was, in a word, spectacular. Composed of four youthful musicians, the quartet is every bit as good as more venerable ensembles, bringing to mind the glory days of the Juilliard Quartet under Robert Mann. They play with the same level of energy and insight that Mann brought to the Juilliard, and their careers have just begun.

The composition of the Jupiter shows how much chamber music has changed since the Juilliard first rose to prominence a half century ago. Instead of four unrelated white men in suits and ties, the quartet is half female (on the middle instruments), with an Asian American (Nelson Lee) playing first violin and the husband (Daniel McDonough) of the second violin playing cello. But wait, there's more: the two women are sisters, with Megan Freivogel on second and Elizabeth Freivogel on viola. In the old days, such a close-knit ensemble was unheard of. To cite but one example, the members of the venerable Guarneri Quartet were famous for never socializing with each other. They thought such uncontrolled outside influences might hurt their playing.

There's no evidence that marital spats or sibling rivalry have harmed the Jupiter. On the contrary, all four members are fully engaged with each other, glancing back and forth across the stage and smiling or frowning as the music demands. Above all else, they look like they're having fun.

The evening, however, began on serious note. Before the opening work (Beethoven's last string quartet, Opus 135), cellist Daniel McDonough dedicated the performance to Kit Neustadter, the force of nature who founded the Occidental concerts in 1980 and ran them almost single-handedly until she succumbed to cancer earlier this year. The presence of the Jupiter on the Occidental series is but one indication of the consistently high quality of musicians Neustadter brought to her small venue for nearly three decades.

With Neustadter's memory hovering in the background, the quartet eased into the Beethoven with an absolutely beautiful entry by the viola. The other instruments followed in turn, blending into a warm, room-filling sound in which each voice could be distinctly heard. Their dynamics were well controlled, and their intonation was impeccable. The first movement was great, but the vivacious second was even better, sending shivers up the spine. The first violin played his treacherous high runs perfectly, conveying real excitement and urgency.

The elegant third movement found the players swaying back and forth, their vibratos perfectly matched, the spaces between the notes as expressive as the notes themselves. One wondered how such young players could capture the spirit of this movement, which seems to express Beethoven's own vision of his impending death. Such gloomy thoughts were cast aside in the spirited fourth, which opened with powerful chords that resonated at length in the cello. The second violinist smiled throughout, even during the most insistent passage, where she and the first hammer away at a single note. The pizzicato section right before the end was simply breathtaking.

After the tumultuous applause, I overheard a woman behind me telling her companion, "Those instruments were just talking to you." Indeed they were, in some of the best acoustics to be found in this small corner of the world.

Late Beethoven is a hard act to follow, but the Jupiter finessed that problem by bringing on guest artist Jose Franch-Ballester, a Spanish clarinetist of great charm and wit. He explained that the group had asked him to play a work for solo clarinet. In searching for possible repertory to complement the Beethoven quartet and the Mozart clarinet quintet to come, he stumbled upon the works of Bela Kovacs, a Hungarian clarinet teacher born in 1937 who composes homages to various composers as etudes for his students. Franch-Ballester played two of these homages, one to Bach and one to de Falla.

From the outset, Franch-Ballester displayed a pure, rich tone of great subtlety and variety. The first homage certainly sounded like Bach, with a stately introduction followed by a brilliant allegro. Franch-Ballester played all the runs perfectly, his fingers blazing across the clarinet's many keys. The climax arrived with a fugue, during which Franch-Ballester brought in several voices at different points in his register, sustaining the illusion that all were unfolding simultaneously, even though he could only play one note at a time.

In contrast to the proliferation of notes in the Bach, the de Falla homage focused on the clarinet's panoply of sounds. In Franch-Ballester's capable hands and lungs, these ranged from foot-stomping Flamenco strums to spontaneous "Olés!," with some lightning-fast clapping mixed in. The mixture really evoked the sounds and passions of the player's and composer's native Spain.

Just before the second half began, a large male personage changed seats and placed himself directly in front of me, blocking my view of the stage. This is one disadvantage of the Occidental church, where the unraked floor and the low stage make for some difficult sightlines. No matter: the sound was enough.

Like Beethoven's Opus 135, Mozart's clarinet quintet is a late work, K. 581 out of 626. Many consider it his greatest piece of chamber music, and I am inclined to agree. It has moments of ineffable sadness and unbounded delight, but the dominant mood is one of heavenly serenity. If ever a piece of music floated out of the clouds, this is it.

Unable without craning my neck to view the Jupiter and Franch-Ballester at work upon the stage, I simply closed my eyes and allowed myself to be transported on a celestial carpet of sound. The journey began at once, with the group establishing a brisk tempo that carried throughout the first movement. Each instrument stood out in turn before falling back into a blissful unison. In the second movement, the strings created a shimmering background for the clarinet, which entered and exited the stage like a magician materializing out of thin air.

The third-movement minuet was a study in contrasts, its strong, emphatic sections set off dramatically against its melancholic stretches. The contrasts continued into the fourth movement, which features a series of variations on a lilting theme. All the variations were distinctive, but the real standouts were the plangent viola section and the truly virtuosic interplay between the first violin and clarinet near the end.

The standing ovation was immediate and unanimous. After two curtain calls, Franch-Ballester introduced the encore by describing the horrific political situation in Argentina during the Peron dynasty, when soldiers routinely knocked on doors and took family members away, often never to be seen again. It was to these legions of "disappeared" that Astor Piazzolla dedicated his haunting piece "Oblivion," which the group played to heartbreaking perfection. The final moment, when Franch-Ballester simply blew toneless air through his instrument, was unforgettable. All those lives lost in a rush of wind.